Sunday, 31 March 2013

Yosemite, Part II

The thing I love most about going on a hike for a few days is the simplicity of it all. Out of communication, away from advertising, away from traffic. And as I often tend to hike alone; away from people.

The rhythm of the day is broken down into the basics. Eat, walk, rest. There aren’t many decisions to be made, and there’s a whole lot of space and time for thinking. Everything I need for the few days I’m away is carried on my back. Simple.

I like to rely on my body, my own physical exertion, as a means of transport. 

I’m with Thoreau when he says “Simplify, simplify, simplify! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”

Admittedly, it seems that simplicity is relative to time and place. When John Muir explored in the Sierra Nevada in the nineteenth century, his preparation went like this: "I rolled up some bread and tea in a pair of blankets with some sugar and a tin cup and set off."

In contrast, a quick tally of a typical hike for me revealed that – excluding food – I carry and wear at least thirty five items, worth well over two thousand dollars.

Still, life on a hike is definitely simpler. With a solid pair of boots on my feet, a map and compass in my pocket, a pack containing warm gear, sleeping gear, basic but healthy food and a book and journal, and with a few days and a few kilometres of path ahead of me, I’m about as happy as I can be.

That’s how it was that crisp sunny morning in Yosemite National Park. I’d mapped out a three day loop walk that would take me from Tuolomne Meadows over a couple of passes of around 11,000 feet, around the shore of several highland lakes and back beside a clear bubbling stream into Tuolomne on the famous John Muir trail.

I’d be walking through glacier-carved foreign lands, one of the world’s most famous and striking National Parks. The autumn weather was perfect for hiking, cool and sunny. It was bear country (black bears, not grizzlies), I might see deer, and the higher peaks were covered in snow. You can drink from the rivers, and camping is allowed anywhere along the way.

I felt a lucky man, light and free, as I shouldered my pack and set off up the track.


Following a path into beautiful country, on a cool clear morning = happiness. 

Above the tree-line, the path continues.

On top of the first pass. 

Saturday, 16 March 2013

Yosemite, Part I

I hired a little hatchback and rolled east out of San Francisco. Through flat sunny plains and towards the Sierra Nevada. The craggy mountains were just a name to me, I didn’t really know what to expect and even as I drew near there wasn’t much to prepare me for the sight.

Driving into Yosemite Valley I was overawed. The landforms are towering, there is a feel of the ancient and the powerful, the spiritual nature of the earth. Giant granite rockfaces climb heavenwards, standing watch over the coming of day and the coming of night, the changing of seasons, the passing of ages.

Waterfalls dropped from on high, vapors drifting off like steam. Squirrels and deer haunt the shadows. Snow lay thick on the high ground, but the sky was crisp and blue. Pine, spruce and fir trees, so foreign and lush to my Australian eyes, stood around clear quiet lakes.

Yosemite is rich in history. Until 1851 it was home to the Ahwahneechee tribe of indigenous Americans, but with white settlers flooding to California during the gold rush, they were routed and by 1855 tourists were arriving. In 1864 Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant, which entrusted the valley to the state “for public use, resort and recreation.”  This was eight years before Yellowstone became the world’s first official National Park.

I sensed it was a special place. And, I soon learned, I wasn’t alone. Yosemite National Park is the United States’ most popular and receives three and a half million visitors a year. Like busy little ants we shuttled around, from carpark to booking office to campsite.

On one hand, I thought it was fantastic that so many people were connecting with the real world, breathing the fresh air and walking the trails. On the other hand I really wouldn’t have minded if some of these people had buggered off to the shopping malls in the nearest city. 

The park covers over three thousand square kilometres, but the majority of visitors stay within the eighteen square kilometres of Yosemite Valley. The glacier-carved valley is spectacular, more than worthy of this attention. This is where the peaks with names like Half Dome, the Sentinel and El Capitan are found. With their stark, striking forms they have become recognisable, almost like a symbol you’d see on a tshirt.   

You need to book ahead for one of the four hundred daily passes to hike up Half Dome.

I’d planned to join the masses for some day hikes around the valley, but for the time being I was craving some space, so I waited in line at the visitor centre to arrange a pass for a three day hike in the quieter northern region. With the route mapped out and everything I needed with me, I was ready for a stroll through the backwoods.


From Tunnel View lookout. El Capitan is in the foreground on the left, and Half Dome is in the background, just right of centre. 

Half Dome. 

El Capitan. Can you spot the rock climbers? No, neither can I, but they're bound to be there - the place was crawling with them.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

New Year in an Old Town, Part III

Djenne feels like the ancient world. Gusts of wind whip up the dust as donkeys pull carts of firewood along the streets. Mobs of children covered head to toe in dust carry buckets in which to put their begged food. The buildings are almost entirely mud built. Only the mopeds zipping around give the game away.

In the oldest part of town, narrow alleys wind in and out between the two storey houses. I wandered through and saw gutters holding pools of foul-smelling muck, children playing, women sweeping and girls pounding millet.

Some of the houses contain workshops where bogolan cloth is made. Using mud and leaves, patterns are painted onto strips of cotton cloth. These are sewn together and used for blankets, table cloths and clothing. The designs are usually symmetrical patterns in black and shades of brown. The workshops have walls covered in bogolan, and piles and piles of it cover the floor.

Djenne is famous for its Great Mosque. The largest mud built construction in the world, its formidable profile looms over the centre of the town. Tourists aren’t allowed inside, but the outside view is majestic enough. It is dotted with struts made of bundles of palm sticks which protrude to the outside. It has three main towers and many many pinnacles. The mud walls are a metre thick, and the main prayer hall is twenty six by fifty metres in size. There is also an interior courtyard of a similar size, and other galleries, including one for use only by women.

After every rainy season the there is a festival in which the whole town helps to repair the mosque. It needs to be coated with a new layer of mud. The new plaster is mixed in pits and the dusty boys jump in to play, which stirs it up, then it is carried to the mosque and men swarm over the building, standing on the sticks poking out of it, to cover the mosque with its new coat.  

In front of the mosque is the large open space which holds the bustling Monday market, and at other times you can see tourists – cameras held high – sauntering back and forth gawking at the mosque, while locals criss-cross the square on bicycles or mopeds.

Gangs of those same dusty boys careen about harassing herds of ambling goats, chasing each other or making inquiries of the tourists. ‘Mister, give me a gift’ they say in French. Maybe they’ll demand money, a hundred Euro ought to do it. If this fails they still like to know your name, where you’re from and any other important facts that spring to mind. Trying to be helpful they adopt the pompous air of a tour guide and point to the mosque, whose giant frame blocks the horizon, and say this is the Great Mosque of Djenne. Oh really? Thank you very much.

Antonio, Alicia and I went to a small hotel for a quiet drink. There were only tourists there as the locals are Muslim and do not drink. When we returned to our hotel I saw that Betty had come to my rescue. She must have noticed my discomfort and asked the staff for an extra mattress which was placed on the floor for me to sleep on. I saw that Antonio felt rebuffed, but pretended not to notice.  


The Great Mosque

Dusty boys take a break

Friday, 1 March 2013

New Year in an Old Town, Part II

Just before arriving in Djenne Antonio proclaimed the four of us simply had to spend the night together, as though our taxi ride had somehow bonded us as family. Sure, these people are annoying and don’t show any signs of liking each other, but it’s New Year’s Eve, I thought, so why not? We climbed out of the taxi and began the task of finding somewhere to stay. 

Walking through the town, Antonio was like a character from a movie. Dressed in traditional African bou-bou (bought at great expense, but much to the delight of the Malians), he strutted the streets picking up children and putting them on his shoulders, hugging women, laughing and making merry with men, goats and donkeys. He was a whirlwind full of ideas and we others could only follow in his wake.

A small hotel told us they had a four person room at a cheap price. I waited in the courtyard with the bags while the others went to look at the room. Two minutes later Antonio came to fetch me, and showed me into a small but comfortable room with a double bed off to one side and two singles up the other end. 

He said “Steve we’ve discussed the bed situation and” he glanced at Alicia “think it’s best if we take the double bed.”

“Of course” I said, having thought it obvious.

“So it’s settled then. We’ll take the room!” he proclaimed with his right hand raised in the air, index finger extended, to signify the sealing of the deal.

We then went out to collect our bags. Betty struggled in with her gigantic backpack and dropped it on one of the beds, Antonio came in and flopped down on the double bed and then Alicia came in and put her bag down on the other single bed. She sat on the bed and started sorting her stuff out, making herself at home.

Nobody else seemed to think this was strange. Wasn’t that my bed?

As my mind worked through the scenario, it dawned on me that when Antonio said we’ll take the double bed, he might have been referring to he and I. I didn’t understand, but guessed that maybe in their culture it wouldn’t be right to share a bed with his wife when other people were in the room. But to share it with a stranger?

So this is how I was to see in the new year, cuddled up to this hairy, larger than life Italian man. It wasn’t even a real double bed, more like one and a bit singles. And with the mosquito net hanging over the sides, the space was further constricted.

I put my bag on the floor in the centre of the room and thought about this.

“Um, I might go get a drink somewhere” I said.

“Not me”, said Betty ‘I’m going to rest here a little while.”

“We’ll joining you” Antonio said, “It is the new year’s eve is it not?”